Posts Tagged ‘public policy’

Smoke Gets in My Eyes

Friday, 2 September 2011

If one wanted to know the solution to particular mathematical problem, and found that different groups gave different answers, then it might be interesting to hear or to read what each group said about the motives of rival groups, but one really ought to chose which answer or answers were correct based upon principles of mathematics, rather than based upon which groups seemed most noble. If one lacked the competence to decide the issue based upon principles of mathematics, then it would probably be best to resist coming to any decision if at all possible.

Likewise, if one wanted to know the solution to a particular problem of the natural sciences, but found that different groups gave different answers, then it might be interesting to hear or to read what each group said about the motives of rival groups, but one really ought to chose which answer or answers were correct based upon principles of science, rather than based upon which group seemed most noble. If one lacked the competence to decide the issue based upon principles of science, then it would probably be best to resist coming to any decision if at all possible.

And if one wanted to know what sort of social policy ought to be applied to some case, but found that different groups gave one different answers, then it might be interesting to hear or to read what each group said about the motives of rival groups, but one really ought to chose which answer or answers were correct based upon principles of science in combination with rational criteria for evaluating ethical philosophies (if, indeed, those criteria are not themselves scientific). And if one lacked the competence to decide the issue based upon such principles, then it would probably be best to resist coming to any decision if at all possible.

Now, all of that ought to be obvious; but consider how much pundits and the major media focus on personalities and theories of motive when it comes both to policy and to science applicable to policy, and how little real science and how little careful dissection of philosophical case is presented. If one party wants one thing, and another wants something different, then we are given some tale of the nobility or at least the level-headedness of one group, and of the knavery or foolishness of the other; accompanying this narrative will be cartoon physics, cartoon biology, or cartoon economics. If ethics are relevant, then one might get cartoon philosophy of ethics, or some ethical philosophy might be implicitly imposed, as if no rival philosophy were conceivable. (If something is treated as good, there generally ought to be an explanation somewhere of what makes it good. If something is treated as bad, there likewise ought to be an explanation of what makes it bad.)

This practice is so prevalent because so many listeners and readers unthinkingly accept it. And I'm not just talking about low-brow or middle-brow people. The self-supposed high-brow folk, more educated and ostensibly more thoughtful, accept this practice. Most of the people who would, if they read them, say that the previous four paragraphs were trivially obvious accept this practice. I don't simply mean that they don't cancel subscriptions or write angry letters to the editor; I mean that they allow their own beliefs to be shaped by some group engaging in the practice. They fall into attending to one narration of this sort, and let it guide them until and unless some crisis causes them to turn their backs on it, at which point they almost always begin to be guided by a narration using the same basic practice to advance some different set of policies.

Sometimes, one must make a decision, with nothing upon which to go except the discernible motives of conflicting parties. In those cases, one should bear in mind that, except to the extent that they are reporting brute fact (rather than interpretation), one typically learns more about the narrators themselves from what they say (and avoid saying) of their opponents, than one learns about their opponents. (And one should not allow the emotional appeal of a narrative to lead one to pretend that one must make a decision that one can in fact defer.)

Modeling Madness

Monday, 27 April 2009

Some people try to light a candle. Some people curse the darkness. Me? Part of me wants to model the darkness.

I was led to this reälization upon reading the latest entry from zenicurean. In response to news reports about the latest swine-flu concerns, he writes

Plenty of first reactions appear to heavily involve doing things actual health care experts are not chiefly concerned about getting done, but that's how it always works, isn't it?
And I almost immediately thought about why those first reäctions are what they are. For example
  • Officials want to be seen as doing something.
  • People, including officials, often greatly over-estimate their understanding of issues that have (or seem to have) a significant bearing on general welfare.
  • Officials with axes to grind are quick to find excuses for the grinding.
  • Politicians can exploit the prejudices and desires of voters who are predisposed to support various measures (such as blocking foreign trade or travel, or subsidizing some profession).

So, could we pull this altogether, and surely other things that don't come so quickly to-mind, perhaps into a mathematical model, or perhaps into something less formal, that would have some predictive efficacy, or at least some distinctive explanatory efficacy?

Suppressing the Dirty Truth

Monday, 20 October 2008
Blow to image of green reusable nappy by Marie Woolf at the Times
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has instructed civil servants not to publicise the conclusions of the £50,000 nappy research project and to adopt a “defensive” stance towards its conclusions.

[…]

The report found that while disposable nappies used over 2½ years would have a global warming , impact of 550kg of CO2 reusable nappies produced 570kg of CO2 on average. But if parents used tumble dryers and washed the reusable nappies at 90C, the impact could spiral to . 993kg of CO2 A Defra spokesman said the government was shelving plans for future research on nappies.

Unfortunately, there's nothing truly extraordinary about this story. Policies driven by common intutions — especially those entangled with a morality of the collectiveoften have very different effects from those expected, sometimes opposite effects. And people actively resist any scientific argument that runs counter to those intutions. In the cases of imposition and of sacrifice for an ostensible collective good, the underlying theory seems to be that it's more important to inculcate an acceptance of imposition and a habit of sacrifice than it is otherwise to effect beneficial policy.